What If?

Sam committed suicide in October nearly eight years ago. There is so much stigma surrounding suicide that it is still strange to say out loud.

One of the boys tells me that sometimes, instead of using the “S” word when people ask how his father died, he tells them that Sam fell accidentally, so they won’t think less of his father. I get that. Immediately after Sam’s death, I expected to be ostracized by my community, my church, my sons’ school, even potentially my own family. It’s the world we live in. A world that criticizes death by suicide. A world that marginalizes the grief wrought by a loved one’s suicide. A world where a young boy feels compelled to protect his dead father’s reputation.

I wasn’t treated as an outcast after Sam’s death. I was held and fed and heard. I think this is a testament to the progress that has been made by raising awareness and increasing compassion toward mental health issues, even in one generation. But we still have work to do.

Sam’s last words to me were “Bye, sweetie. I love you.” What if, instead, he had been able to say, “I need help”? What if he had been able to let me – or someone, anyone – know that he was in a kind of pain that wasn’t addressed by an aspirin and a nap? What if he had been able to articulate that he was in so much anguish that jumping off a parking structure seemed like a rational idea?

I have learned not to get caught in the “what if” loop, because “what if” wasn’t and “what is” is. It might not have changed everything. It might not have changed anything. But there is a place for “what if” thinking; it is the place where we hope to create progress, a place where we provide community and a gentler world for those who follow. We might not have been able to eliminate Sam’s pain, but what if we could have taken away his shame? Maybe he would not have felt so alone in the darkness. Maybe he could have heard my last words to him, “Bye, sweetie. I love you.”

Sam had chronic and debilitating back pain, and he rarely (and then reluctantly) asked for help. Then again, his back pain was impossible to mask, wincing as he got in and out of the car, shuffling along old-man style. In fact, he had a prescription for vicodin left from his most recent back surgery, but he resisted taking the pain-killers for fear of becoming dependent on them. The toxicology report showed that he had vicodin in his system when he died and, as a result, was not likely in any significant physical pain. I found this fact oddly comforting. But what if, instead of reaching for the bottle, he had reached for the phone?

Asking for help does not necessarily come naturally, and some of us seem to struggle more with this than others, especially if we fear being judged. When life’s problems do not yield to simple solutions, these are the times that companionship along the journey is especially important, but silence suffers alone. Sam had fewer than ten contacts saved on his cell phone; more than half of those were his favorite places to order take-out. What if he had called any one of the ten? I imagine that even the pizza guy would have wanted to help. It might not have changed everything. Or anything.

Sam didn’t call anyone.

September is the official Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month, and even though it’s October, the conversation continues. Believe me, I know these are hard conversations to have, but silence makes the stigma worse. What if, by increasing awareness and compassion, we open up the possibility for the kind of world where someone in distress can reach out for help without fear of judgment? It’s a legacy worth talking about.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And possibility.

Stigma

The Lenten journey begins with ashes
And the urge to wipe that smudge off.
Perfection, clarity, beauty
Lie beneath the stain.
I don’t want to see that death.
Living corpses all.
No.
I cannot look in the mirror.

My son turns away, embarrassed, like a teenager,
Mortified by his mother’s mere existence.

Eyes drawn to my forehead
As if I’m messy
Or crazy
Dead woman walking.

I am more
Than the smear accentuating
The crease in my furrowed brow.

It seems we should
Each one of us
Keep her scars hidden.
They are easier (for others) to tolerate unseen.

But He does not look at wounds that way.

He lifts my chin
Brings my eyes to His.
Love
Wipes the tears.
Tenderly, as a mother
Kissing the forehead of her feverish baby.

Don’t you understand what the mark means?

You are mine,
Chosen,
Beloved.

Grace wipes the ashen stain
With baptismal waters.

You have always been my own child
And will ever be
Mine.

Stigma

I never wanted Sam’s death to define me or his children or to define Sam himself. This is sort of a challenge because the last impression he left us with was rather a shock. Believe me, suicide is not the way you want to become your town’s local sensation.

While we as a culture have made significant inroads in the area of mental health, death by suicide continues to carry with it a significant stigma. From the outside, suicide looks more like a choice than an illness. It is very hard to reconcile the matter of Sam’s death with the manner of his life.

As I was preparing the eulogy for Sam’s funeral, my youngest son said, “Mommy, it would take a whole year to say all the good things about Daddy.” Indeed. It would take much longer for us to accept the fact of his suicide as a part of the package.

I married Sam because he saw me truly as I am and loved me anyway – warts and all, as they say. I was safe with him, and I grew into myself in the shelter of his love. This was his gift to me for almost 17 years. It was inconceivable that he was dead at age 41, let alone by his own hand. Sometimes I wondered whether I had really known him at all.

As usual, I turn to my dogs for inspiration, levity and acceptance. We have a little dog, a black and tan Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, with a pedigree a page long. He has a small white patch on his chin and another patch of white on his chest. It looks like he has spilled milk down his front, and he is too cute for words. Unfortunately for his breeding career, according to “breed standards,” these white patches, along with a nose that is just a tad too long, disqualify him from competition. The breeder dubbed him “pet quality,” which has since become my favorite euphemism for a doggy stigma.

He is, in fact, the ideal family pet. His little tail wags from the moment he wakes up until the moment he wiggles under the covers down at my feet. He is always happy to see us, and he is a complete joy. We call him “love in a dog shape.” His faults have not rendered him less lovable.

Our local catholic church has started hosting a weekly adoration. On Tuesdays. Not that anybody asked me, but adoration is most definitely a Sushi-Tuesday sanctioned activity. For those unfamiliar with this ritual, here are the essentials: a priest places the sacramental bread on the altar, and people sit around reverently. That’s all. Anyone can participate. You don’t have to lose ten pounds or get a job. You don’t have to dress up or wear mascara, or take a shower. You don’t even have to be catholic. You just have to show up. Slowing down helps. Adoration is simply about presence. It is as if Jesus says, “Just be here and sit with me.”

My Lenten practice this year has been to spend an hour in adoration each Tuesday. As I have mentioned, sitting still is not generally my strong suit, but I have managed to keep my weekly vigil nonetheless. Not surprisingly, I have found great joy in committing the time to silence, contemplation and community. And something else has happened in the process. Each week, as I sit still for a while adoring the gentle presence, I start to get the impression that Jesus might be adoring me too. Completely as I am. There is no flaw so egregious as to disqualify us from being loved by the divine.

The experience reminds me of Sam. This man with a gentle spirit was a kind father and husband, a T-ball coach, a concerned community member. Only a few weeks before his death, while walking his sons to elementary school, he noticed a van making an illegal U-turn. The driver was unaware that he was perilously close to hitting two eleven-year-olds on their bicycles in the crosswalk, also en route to school. Unaware, that is, until Sam stepped into the crosswalk between the kids and the van, shouting at the driver. Many times we wished that he had died that way – a hero’s death – instead of by his own design. These moments make his death that much harder to understand.

Our gift to him has been – through the course of our healing work – to see him as he was, the good, the bad, the ridiculous, and even the manner of his death, and to love and honor him still. How important for his children – and in fact, all of us – to be exceptional and unique and flawed. And loved through all of it. Adored, even.

None of which is to condone suicide. On the contrary, it is the biggest mistake of Sam’s life. Time and again, we have longed to delete that last little line of his biography. But over time, we have accepted that one word in particular. Suicide. And in the process we have learned that this last word does not invalidate any of the goodness, integrity and vitality that filled the preceding 41 years of his life. The boys and I have found our way to love Sam completely for who he was, even including how he died.

As I write, my “pet quality” Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is in his usual spot, asleep at my feet. The breed is known for their sweet temperament. They are affectionate, playful and gentle. All true. This companion dog is my black and tan shadow. He is the best fetcher I have ever had, and if he is awake, his tail is wagging.

As with most purebreds, the Cavaliers suffer from a specific health challenge; most will die from heart failure. Also true for mine. I knew when we got this dog that he had a relatively short life expectancy, about 8 to 10 years. He’s 8 years old now and has a significant heart murmur. He is on three different heart medications, and the combination seems to give him the most terrible gas. It’s not always sweetness and light being the dog’s favorite, as I sit here typing in the gas cloud. It makes me so sad that the dog who is all heart may very well die from heart failure. It seems completely unfair.

Sometimes I think of Sam’s suicide as a kind of heart failure. If I had suspected he might have died prematurely from a valve failure I would have married him anyway. If you had told me he was going to kill himself, I wouldn’t have believed you. And while “suicide” is harder to say out loud than “heart attack,” I don’t have any regrets. At the end of it all, there is no easy way.

In the meantime, the best we can do is to live with joy and love and laughter, which is why I chose this ridiculously adorable dog to begin with. The heartbreak and tears will come as well. My Cavalier coughs and wheezes and wags. His favorite exercise is to jump on the table searching for scraps the second that we get up from dinner. I imagine someday he will have his doggy heart attack while gorging himself on a forbidden treat. It wouldn’t be the worst way to go.

And we will love him still.

***

Wishing you light and strength. And an adorable “pet quality” dog.